Foodies who disdain smorgasbords and sprawling restaurants that feed hundreds of bused-in tourists, feel free to stop reading right now.
If you’re still with me, let’s talk about chicken pot pie. And shoo-fly pie. And whoopie pies, for that matter.
My recent family trip to Pennsylvania Dutch Country started out with a kid-centric theme, but I ended up obsessing about food. Because there was a lot of it. And it was the kind of hearty cuisine perfect for cold days and rural outings.
The Pennsylvania Dutch, which includes Amish and Mennonite communities, first settled in South Central Pennsylvania in the 1720s, bringing with them farming traditions from Switzerland and southern Germany.
Farm-to-table dining was — and still is — a matter of course. Just look around: Though increasingly hemmed in by outlet stores and chain restaurants, Amish country still yields apples, peaches, soybean, alfalfa, corn, and pumpkins — as well as free-range chickens and dairy cows.
On an Aaron & Jessica’s Amish buggy ride in Bird-in-Hand (yes, that’s a town), our Amish driver/guide told us that a farmer is up at 4:30 a.m. to milk the cows. The hard-working day comes full circle when the cows are milked again at 4:30 that afternoon. It’s no wonder that the Amish pass their plates for such rib-clinging fare as fried chicken, meatloaf, and mashed potatoes.
Whether you eat at one of the area’s famed smorgasbords or swing a personal invitation to an Amish family’s table, here are seven foods to sample in Lancaster County:
1. Pretzels. Julius Sturgis opened America’s first commercial pretzel bakery in Lititz in 1861. Today you can still see bakers twisting soft pretzels (buy them hot in the gift shop) and take a tour of the historic bakery on Lititz’s ridiculously quaint Main Street. You can even try pretzel-twisting yourself — an activity my six-year-old really enjoyed. She was disappointed that she couldn’t bake and eat her creation, but getting an Official Pretzel Twister certificate softened the blow. Tip: The gift shop offers free samples of Tom Sturgis hard pretzels in flavors like cinnamon and jalapeno, baked at the family’s modern facility in Reading.
2. Chicken pot pie. Actually not a pie, but a chicken stew laced with chewy egg noodles. I shamelessly had double servings of it at Hershey Farm Restaurant, an all-you-can-eat buffet in Strasburg. The trick when you visit one of these smorgasbords is to stick to the local specialties on offer, which here also include ham balls (meatballs made with ham and ground pork) and brown buttered noodles.
3. Whoopie pies. Also not a pie, but two chocolate cake disks with cream filling in the middle. The treat can be found in restaurants, farmers’ markets, and bake shops all over Lancaster County. I devoured it at Hershey Farm Restaurant, which hosts an annual Whoopie Pie Festival in September, with more than 100 flavors ranging from s’mores to oatmeal raisin. The Good Cooking Store, in nearby Intercourse (another town name with an interesting story behind it), offers whoopie-pie-making classes in the summer.
4. Shoo-fly pie. Finally, an actual pie — this one made from molasses with a crumble topping. Though many places offer their versions of it; I enjoyed it at Good ‘N Plenty. At this barn of a restaurant (feeding some 1,000 people a day in high season), opt for family-style dining: you share with your tablemates dishes of fried chicken, meatloaf, corn, chow chow (pickled vegetables), and more. Among the desserts, zero in on the sweet-enough-to-draw-flies shoo-fly pie. Though this time, you might not want to share.
5. Ice cream. In a place where dairy cows are a common sight, housemade ice cream often rounds out local menus. The region’s most famous ice-cream makers, Turkey Hill, even opened an interactive tourist attraction in 2011. Housed in a former silk factory, the Turkey Hill Experience lets visitors create their own virtual flavor (my six-year-old invented Mango Chocolate Fudge ice cream loaded with chocolate-covered pretzels and apple pie filling), climb aboard a vintage ice-cream truck, and learn about the history of the circa 1931 dairy. Best of all: free sample cups of Turkey Hill ice cream (which may just include their limited-edition Whoopie Pie ice cream, depending on when you visit).
6. Root beer. This beverage may be the color of mud, but it’s sweet as summer. In warmer months, be on the look out for Amish vendors who sell their homemade root beer in gallon jugs at roadside stands. We were able to buy a screwtop bottle of the sugary refreshment at a farm stop on our Amish buggy ride.
7. Vegetarian dosa. Okay, this dish may not be traditional to the Amish, but it’s definitely authentic to contemporary Lancaster, a town that surprised us with its cool arts scene and lively restaurants. I ordered this South Indian crispy crepe at John J. Jeffries, a sustainably minded Lancaster restaurant that sources its meats and produce locally. I meant to take an iPhone photo of how pretty it looked, but I scarfed it down before I could.
Amy Alipio is an associate editor at National Geographic Traveler magazine. Follow her story on Twitter @AmyTravels.